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With racial attacks on the rise, Asian Americans fear for their safety

Demonstrators marched during a protest against Asian hate on Times Square in New York, in March, after a troubling spike in violence against the Asian American community during the coronavirus pandemic.
Demonstrators marched during a protest against Asian hate on Times Square in New York, in March, after a troubling spike in violence against the Asian American community during the coronavirus pandemic.

Updated October 22, 2021 at 9:46 AM ET

In the Bay Area of Northern California there has been a spike in hate-driven violence against Asian Americans.

A 64-year-old grandma assaulted and robbed in San Jose. A 52-year-old Asian American woman shot in the head with a flare gun in Oakland.

All of it feels too close to home for Lisa Lu, a new mom who lives in the Bay Area.

"I felt like during the height of the pandemic it didn't feel safe for me to go outside, and I was actually pregnant for most of the pandemic," Lu says. "So that was especially scary, like the thought of me going anywhere and being attacked and anything happening to my baby."

According to a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 1 in 4 Asian Americans feared — in the past few months — that members of their household would be attacked or threatened because of their race or ethnicity. More than 20% of Native American and Black households also expressed this fear.

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The attacks in Lu's area on Asian Americans are reflective of the nation. Last year, the FBI recorded the highest number of hate crimes in more than a decade, with 64% motivated by race, ethnicity or heritage. But that number is likely even higher, advocates and experts say, since some agencies don't report this data to the FBI and many agencies report no incidents.

Life changed when Trump used racist rhetoric

For Asian Americans, the spike in attacks and the rising fear came with the global pandemic and the racist rhetoric from the Trump administration, including the use of derogatory terms like "Kung Flu."

"Trump calling it the China virus, that's when I felt like life changed," Lu says. "And honestly I don't want to venture out to any areas that are not diverse, and even in San Francisco and Oakland, I wouldn't walk alone."

Lu always has a buddy when she's out walking and she urges her older parents to stay inside as well.

"What's different about our poll is that we asked about your personal fears," says Mary Findling, the assistant director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program, speaking about the new poll. "We were shocked that 1 in 4 Asian Americans and around 1 in 5 Black and Native Americans say that in the past few months, they've feared that someone might threaten or physically attack their household because of their race or ethnicity."

Based on the data, she says, crime may seem rare or random for white people.

"But if you're not white, what we found is it's not random or rare at all," she says. "And this is really capturing people's everyday lived experiences. One in 4 is a lot of people who are looking over their shoulders in fear."

The poll also found in the past few months alone that 31% of Native American households reported facing discrimination or unfair treatment because of their race or ethnicity, followed by 29% of Black households, 26% of Asian households, and 20% of Latino households.

Everyday slights add to growing fear

For Asian Americans, in the past year there has been a lot of focus on high profile incidents like the horrific killings of Asian American women in Atlanta this spring, or the mass shooting in Indianapolis where half of those killed were American Sikhs. But according to Stop AAPI hate, Asian Americans are also dealing with everyday hateful slights and transgressions that contribute to the growing fear.

"The fear is based not only on potential hate crimes, but even the hate incidents," says Manjusha P. Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. "They're refused service at a grocery store or at a coffee shop, they're worried about even just being verbally harassed."

One organization alone got 9,000 reports in 15 months

Incidents like those make up 90% of the 9,000 that have been reported to her organization in 15 months. And that, she believes, is "just the tip of the iceberg."

Kulkarni says Asian Americans have been depicted as the perpetual foreigner across centuries. Because they're treated as outsiders, these communities become easily scapegoated. That's what happened with COVID, which originated in Wuhan, China, she says.

"Immediately you had President Trump drawing correlations. Blaming outright COVID on the Chinese people, using the racist rhetoric that he did: 'Wuhan virus, China virus, Kung flu,'" she says. "Then, essentially, people sort of extrapolating that and saying 'Oh, well, you know, these people brought it.' It's not dissimilar to the Japanese American incarceration, even the bubonic plague in the 1800s where Chinese Americans were blamed."

Before the start of the pandemic, Bay Area resident Lu had faced discrimination. She grew up in a largely white neighborhood as an Asian kid. But she's never felt this acute sense of fear for her physical safety until now.

For 58-year-old Victoria though, as a Black woman, she says she's had that feeling as long as she can remember, because she's been targeted before. She's only using her first name for privacy. She's a survivor of sexual assault.

"Because of my race and also, even more especially, because of my gender," she said. "I'm already a target as being seen as weak [as a woman] and then the color of your skin [the assumption] that you will not possibly report it, you will possibly not be believed."

And for Chris in North Dakota — he's Native American — he also worries about threats or attacks. He spends most of his time on the reservation, where he works and takes care of his brother. Worried about repercussions, he wants to use only his first name as well. He says that when he's off the reservation he's been feeling growing anger from Trump supporters.

"Most people are really friendly here, but there are some people that brazenly discuss not wearing masks in public and discuss immigrants and discuss Native Americans to each other while they're in the store and around people."

He says he often hears offensive things, like the idea that Native Americans are lazy or there are too many Black immigrants in town. And the rhetoric has grown over the past year and a half, before and after the elections.

So he keeps to himself and doesn't discuss his ethnicity or his beliefs.

"They're so vocal about it and offensive with their comments about it," he says. "We're part Native American and there's just this political divide in the country right now after the last president and everything. And so I just try to keep everything low key."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.